Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A War of Attrition

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A War of Attrition

Article excerpt

AT SOME POINT in April, the strike that began last July 13 by production, editorial and circulation workers against the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press will turn into the longest newspaper strike ever in the Motor City.

That's saying something in Detroit. As local journalist Bryan Gruley noted in his book Paper losses, between 1955 and 1967 alone there were more than 100 labor stoppages at Detroit newspapers, including a 134-day strike in 1964.

Just three years later, on Nov. 16, 1967, Teamsters walked off their jobs at the News and kicked off the mother of all Detroit newspapers strikes, a bitter and costly dispute that shut down both papers and was not settled until the following August.

It's a sure bet, however, that the current strike against the two newspapers and their joint operating agency, Detroit Newspapers, will eclipse even that strike for longevity and cost, both financially and emotionally.

Right now, the unions and the newspapers are locked in a grinding combat that is ironically reminiscent of the costly newspaper war the two papers fought for decades until their corporate owners, Knight-Ridder Inc. and Gannett Co., agreed to a JOA that was supposed to stop the bleeding and build ever-increasing profits.

"This is a war of attrition," Frank Vega, the president and chief executive officer of Detroit Newspapers, said in an interview recently.

Despite suffering a walkout from the six unions--including Teamsters--who represent nearly all the papers' organized employees, the Free Press and the News have yet to miss an issue since the beginning of the strike. Since September, they have even managed to publish separate papers--which grow visibly thicker month after month.

By the end of this year, or the first quarter of 1997, the Detroit JOA will begin making money again, Vega says.

There were also some early fissures in the unions' united front: By the end of the summer, nearly half of the journalists represented by Newspaper Guild Local 22 had returned to their jobs to work alongside newly hired newsroom employees.

But the newspapers achieved this at a tremendous cost. The papers estimate they lost about $100 million in 1995 because of the strike. Circulations of both papers, which had already been falling steadily since the JOA was implemented in 1989, plummeted sharply--although how much, like many things in this strike, is a matter of dispute between the union and newspapers.

The newspapers say the morning Free Press has a daily circulation of about 400,000, the afternoon News about 275,000 and the combined Sunday paper 875,000. That would represent a drop of about 24% compared with numbers one year ago--and even from the distribution claims Detroit Newspapers made early in the strike, when it routinely maintained it had printed and distributed"close to a million" copies of the Sunday paper.

Detroit Newspapers has declined to submit its circulation figures for an Audit Bureau of Circulations audit, and the unions--and, increasingly, competing sub urban newspapers--maintain the numbers are exaggerated. The unions can take much of the credit for the circulation falloff--and their advertising boycott campaign still can claim successes eight months later.

And despite the early defection from Newspaper Guild journalists, very few production workers crossed their unions' picket line. Eight months later, union solidarity appears to be as much a fact as a slogan. Of the 600 full-time and part-time union mailers, for example, only four have returned to work at the newspapers, according to the local's secretary/treasurer Jim St. Louis.

Meanwhile, officials of the unions and newspapers occasionally meet across a bargaining table, although there is never any progress reported.

WAR OF NERVES

In this war of nerves, both sides say it is the other guy who will blink first.

"They never thought for a moment that we had 250,000 subscriptions we could pull the switch on. …

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